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Cancer is a word, not a sentence!


Published : Wednesday, 11 December, 2019 at 12:00 AM  Count : 108

Nazarul Islam

Nazarul Islam

We were two happy co-workers, attached to special education section of the Illinois School Board, District 324. Lisa had loved to talk. I had enjoyed her conversation, while she would laugh out loud, at my jokes. I had known Lisa for three years, as someone very special--whom, most people would describe as a supermom: active and on the go with three children ages 4-10. That's why she was bewildered--when she couldn't shake the post-nasal cough she had developed over the summer, two years ago.

'I hadn't been feeling great and thought allergies were the problem. I almost never get sick, though,' she had recalled. 'I took a full course of antibiotics and somehow felt worse afterwards. They took a chest x-ray and the results showed some abnormalities.' Things had escalated quickly from there.

Lisa was admitted to the hospital after her neck became so swollen--that she had difficulty breathing. Eight days later, the doctor broke the news that my dear friend Lisa had a mass in her lungs--one that was indicative of lung cancer. 'What do you mean, I have lung cancer? This is crazy!' Lisa had retorted, without thinking. Perhaps, somewhere in her mind's periphery, she was facing her tragedy ahead--(stage IV non-small cell) lung cancers at the young age of thirty seven!

Fortunately for Lisa, her healthcare team had performed biomarker testing on her tumor, which tested positive for the cancer-causing ALK genetic mutation. This insight opened up Lisa's options for treatment. 'They put me on alectinib which helps treat ALK positive lung cancer tumours. Perhaps, this may have helped shrink--and then stabilize the growth of her tumours, she imagined!

'After just four days of being on alectinib, I felt great and I haven't looked back since.' Lisa had made peace, and had reconciled with her worst apprehensions. She had fondly nicknamed alectinib her 'miracle drug.' And her zest for life never wavered. In my hospital visits, she had confided that she had searched the internet for ways to connect with other ALK positive lung cancer patients, and advocate for more research, behind life-saving lung cancer treatment options.

Shortly afterwards, Lisa had joined two patient advocacy groups, ALK+ and ALK Fusion. 'We thought: let's take matters into our own hands,' Lisa recalled smilingly, to discuss in her group meetings. 'And, I want doctors to understand the patient experience more, and there's so much positivity that can arise from collaborating with them.'
Perhaps, only that day, Lisa had taken a stand for better lung cancer treatment by way of fundraising--she helped organize and fundraise to an unbelievable number; almost $700,000 so far--by way of sharing her story at conferences and community events.

Life does not end abruptly--regardless. At the end of the day we are people, and we all want the same thing. God forbid, as patients, we need more treatment options, so we do not have to constantly face the idea that we have reached the end of the road. Sadly, I had observed the change in the way her eyes looked, and the softening of gloss in those misty oval contours.

A few days later I recall, Lisa had confided 'I am just trying to save my life-and my life is in the hands of my God, and my doctors. I need medicine, here and now. I will do anything to stay here with my children. This is my prayer and my reason to continue with my life...'

Weak and pale, by this time, Lisa had channelled her energy into reading up on the latest lung cancer research and travelling to speak with oncologists, researchers and community members to emphasize the urgency of being able to live beyond a lung cancer diagnosis.
'Every day is a new day and a new chance', she had tried hard to explain to me.
Perhaps, by a slip of mind, I somehow forgot about my previous notes on the progress of Lisa's malignancy. And, for transparencies slake, I must also share this. I believe these small scribbles I had made, constitute to be Lisa's relevant mile markers, in her journey's end.

I fully recall it was Thursday, the 22nd June 2017. This was summer--indeed a lovely, sunny afternoon. Lisa wasn't expecting anything out of the ordinary, when her doctor had stepped into her semi private ward, she was admitted--with the results of tests for a persistent cough she had, has for weeks. At most, she believed that it might only take another round of antibiotics.
Her doctor had been very discreet with the information. She did have stage IV non-small-cell lung cancer.

Lisa's first thought was 'How could that be? I don't even smoke!', followed by her second thought, her serious concerns for what waited ahead for her three beautiful daughters. This is life...If you have lungs, you can get lung cancer.
Her initial experience had been a very challenging one for her. Perhaps, this news tore her into pieces, but the next day, when I had visited her, she remarked: 'Today I am a stronger person. I am grateful to God, my loving and supportive husband, my family, my community, my friends, and my co-workers for all the love, strength, and prayers they give me'.

This experience had taught her two things: If you have lungs, you can get lung cancer - and that there are many more good people in the world, than one may otherwise imagine!
Again, Lisa's story is also about listening to one's own intuition. Only a month before diagnosis, she had started experiencing a persistent pain in her shoulder and a light cough. She had gone to a nearby urgent care facility, for a consultation and pain medication.

The doctor on call had ordered an X-ray, and when the results emerged, had concluded that she thought Lisa had a case of pneumonia that would take a few weeks to go away. She was prescribed antibiotics, but as the days passed, the cough worsened.

After nearly three weeks of persistent coughing and continued pain, Lisa made an appointment with a pulmonologist who ordered another x-ray. The results showed no improvement, and the pulmonologist assured her that the patient just had a 'bad infection.' She had assured Lisa that the antibiotics would take care of that problem.
When the cough and pain got worse, the doctor then ordered a CT scan of her chest. When I visited Lisa, she had broken down. This time, she was alarmed and deeply concerned by the discovery of some cysts in her right lung, as well as lymph nodes, and the presence of lesions in her bones.

Lisa had asked her doctor about this, which also had thought that, it was just part of the infection, but her gut had told her otherwise. On June 20, she had a bronchoscopy. Two days later, Lisa's pulmonologist called her before he left on vacation, to give my dear friend, the devastating diagnosis of lung cancer.

The writer is a former educator
based in Chicago

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